Helpful Blog

December 2016

Rommel's Ace Storm Preparedness



How to Choose Paint Color




Eight tips you need to know about LED Bulbs


  1. They're inexpensive
  2. They're tough
  3. They last
  4. They're cool
  5. They're "instant on"
  6. They're good looking
  7. You need a universal dimmer
  8. You can replace a whole fixture

Ideas for Creating Your Outdoor Space

by The Helpful Hardware Folks

With the right patio furniture, you can extend your living space and create the perfect atmosphere for family and guests to enjoy your deck, patio or porch. Use this guide to buying a patio set or choosing patio furniture that will make your patio, deck or porch irresistible, season after season.

STEP 1: Plan Your Space

Even the most plush and stylish furniture won’t make your guests comfortable if your deck is crammed too full to move around. So, before you go shopping for patio furniture, measure your space and plot out how much room is needed for traffic and empty space. The amount you’re left over with will help you choose furniture that’s sized for your space. Try these tips:

  • Allow about 3’ of space to give people room to pass one another safely and comfortably in spots where they will be moving, serving food or dining.
  • Allow about 2’ of space around furniture.
  • Allow about 1.5’ of space between an ottoman and chair or a table and sofa.

STEP 2: Set Up Zones

Decide what you’ll do most often, and plan your outdoor space around that activity. Keep in mind, the furniture you select for the main “zone” could be the focal point, or, may be out of the way, but may take up the most space. Then, plan out secondary spaces for the activities you’ll do occasionally. Here are some examples of how you can plan to select and arrange your patio set:

  • If grilling out and entertaining is your main activity – Your grill, smoker and fryer may be a main element in the space. You may not want it to be the first thing someone sees on entering the space. An inviting table, with comfy seating may be more visually appealing.
  • If conversation and relaxing are more your style – Bring the comfort of your living room outdoors. A couch, loveseat and coffee table gives everyone room to spread out.
  • If intimate conversation with a friends is part of the routine – Set a glider, porch swing or café table off to the side. Or, create an area with a pair of conversation chairs with ottomans and an accent table. You’ll have a more intimate option on the occasions you’re just enjoying morning coffee, or conversation with a good friend.
  • If relaxing with a good book is your secondary focus – A comfy chair and ottoman, lounge chair, chaise, rocking chair or hammock can be tucked away to the side.

STEP 3: Plan for Adequate Seating

If you have a large family, throw big barbecues or have lots of space to work with look for…

  • A large outdoor dining table. Look for a table that allows for 6-8 people to sit comfortably and still allows room for food and beverages on the table.
  • A bar or buffet. You can serve BBQ buffet style and leave more room at the table.

If you have a smaller family, occasionally entertain larger groups or have some extra space to work with, (but not too much) look for…

  • Picnic tables. Bench seating and the broad, uninterrupted tabletop, makes a traditional picnic table perfect for a casual outdoor dining experience. A painted table and benches can add a fun touch of personality if you want the table to be the focal point of the space.
  • A rounded dining table. Look for a dining table that seats 4-6 people comfortably. A medium to larger-sized circular or oval-shaped dining table can save some space. And a clear glass top helps gives the illusion of more space.
  • A folding picnic table. You can set it up when you need it and stow it away when you don’t.

If you mostly entertain 1-2 guests, your gatherings are more intimate or space is very limited, look for…

  • Bistro or Café Tables. They’re a space-saving option for small patios, decks or balconies and fit nicely into almost any nook. Choose one that echoes your interior style. For more of a traditional look, choose wrought-iron or more sculpted shapes and embellishments. For casual tastes the clean lines of a wooden bistro set or a sleek angular shape echoes a modern interior. Add a pop of color or pattern by adding seat cushions.
  • Outdoor Rocking Chairs. A classic piece of outdoor furniture on the porch. And another great opportunity to add a touch of color with paint.

If you occasionally need extra seating, rarely dine outdoors, have more yard space than patio space or you’re more into relaxing than dining outdoors look for…

  • Couches, chairs and ottomans. A living room-style setup will be used more often. You can store stackable resin chairs or folding chairs and tables for the occasions when you need to serve food or seat more people.
  • Park Benches. Outdoor garden benches set up in the yard offer a quiet escape to read a book or an extra spot for mingling guests to sit down for comfortable conversation.
  • Adirondack chairs. Whether on the front porch or in the yard, the allure of an Adirondack chair is its classic style and low, laid-back comfort. Paint them to add a cheerful pop of color to your outdoor space.
  • A hammock. The ultimate symbol of backyard relaxation is a rope or canvas hammock swaying between two trees. Where trees or posts aren’t available, set up a portable hammock so you won’t miss out on your own little slice of heaven.
  • Chaise Lounges. Lay back and enjoy the sun on your face, or your time by the pool. A folding or plastic lounger lets you relax when time allows, and easy stow away storage when you need the space for entertaining.

STEP 4: Add Color and Style

As a general rule, your outdoor living space should be an extension of your home’s style. Treat your deck, porch or patio like an additional room by adding color and style that echo your interior. Look for…

  • Cushions, an umbrella or an outdoor rug. Bring in the colors or patterns similar to your interior upholstery and textiles. Look for materials that are comfortable but repel water and are stain resistant.
  • Accent tables, a single chair, plant containers or yard decor. If you can’t find them in coordinating colors to your interior palette, paint them. Or, here’s where you can add a pop of contrasting color to an overly neutral space.
  • Outdoor Lighting. Outdoor sconces, landscape lights, lanterns or strings of Edison bulbs or party lights can cast a glow on your space and let you continue enjoying the outdoors into the night.
  • Your Style. Connect your outdoor space to your interior with elements that reflect your personal style. Wood and wicker and metal with clean lines suit more modern or casual aesthetics. Bronzed finishes with more ornate finials, shapes and details coordinate with traditional tastes. On a budget? Add personality to your plastic or resin furniture with paint.

STEP 5: Create Climate Control

You can’t control Mother Nature by adjusting the thermostat, but you can make your outdoor space comfortable without being chased indoors. Look for…

  • An Umbrella or Gazebo. If you haven’t got shade from the sun’s glare, a classic market umbrella is perfect for smaller areas. Tilting patio umbrellas lets you stay in the shade when the sun moves throughout the day. A large rectangular patio umbrella or portable gazebo accommodates larger spaces.
  • A Fire Pit, Patio Heater or Chiminea. Hot days can cool off into brisk nights. And the glow of a heat source or fire is especially relaxing. Fire pits come in so many styles they’re another good way to add a focal point of interest to your space.
  • Misters or Fans or Misting Fans. You can edge your pergola or ceiling beams with misters or get the refreshing delicate spray or breeze from a portable mister or fan.

STEP 6: Storage

An outdoor furniture set is an investment to protect. Clean it up with an outdoor cleaner. Choose covers or a large storage bin or shed to stow away extra seating or protect your cushions and furniture out of season.


Charcoal Grills – June 2016

by The Helpful Hardware Folks

If you’re new to grilling or looking to upgrade your barbecue, this overview of some of the most popular types and styles of grills and accessories can help you decide what you want for your beginner’s outdoor kitchen, what features you can look for when you’re looking to take it up a notch, and even what to buy as a gift for the griller you know.


CHARCOAL GRILLS

The unique rich flavor can be hard to reproduce. They get much hotter than other grills which is ideal for searing meat or cooking foods like tuna quickly. Modern charcoal grills have features for easy cleanup and accessories speed up the process of heating up the coals.

How a Charcoal Grill Cooks
Charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal at the bottom of the grill provide the fuel and the flavor. You monitor temperature using a meat thermometer, or a lid thermometer and you control the temperature by adjusting a vent or damper that lets oxygen into the grill.
How to Start a Charcoal Grill
You have a few options. You can use lighter fluid and a grill lighter. Try an electric starter to avoid chemical taste. Or, use a chimney starter. Lay lighter cubes on the grill grate and light them or add newspaper to the bottom of the chimney starter leaving space in the center and ignite it. Put it on the grate. Fill it with charcoal half to ¾ full. Coals will smoke and glow. Wait 10-15 minutes until coals turn gray, then pour coals into charcoal grate to cook.

    Basic Must-Haves:

  • Grill cleaning brush
  • Long-handled barbecue tongs, fork and spatula
  • Grilling mitt
  • Grill cover
  • Chimney starter or charcoal ignitor
  • Thermometer
  • Basting brush or mop

    Built-in Upgrades:

  • Built-in smoker box, storage or prep surfaces
  • Thermometer in the lid, side burners
  • A portable unit
  • Built-in lighting

    Add-On Accessories:

  • Charcoal baskets for indirect cooking
  • Rotisserie, griddle, wok or or pizza stone
  • Smoker box, wood chips
  • Handle light
  • Vegetable or fish baskets, rib or roast racks, skewers, racks for specialty dishes like wings or poppers
  • Tool holder, apron, wireless thermometer
  • Cookbooks, rubs, sauces

GAS GRILLS

Versatile and easy to master! You can grill, sear, try indirect cooking, rotisserie, smoking. They flavor food from the juices vaporizing, cooking over an open flame and from smoking chips and accessories.

How a Gas Grill Cooks
A propane tank or connection for natural gas fuel the cooking. Burners spread flame over the cooking surface and stainless steel flavoring bars form a tent over the burners to eliminate flare-ups, vaporize drippings and add flavor back into the food. Control the temperature from knobs similar to a stovetop and monitor the temperature from an external thermometer or a digital meat thermometer.
How to Start a Gas Grill
Open the lid so gas won’t build up under the hood. Let gas in by opening the valve on the propane tank or gas supply. Push the starter – this sparks to ignite the gas. It’s up to temperature in minutes.

    Basic Must-Haves:

  • Grill cleaning brush
  • Long-handled barbecue tongs, fork and spatula
  • Grilling mitt
  • Grill cover
  • Thermometer
  • Basting brush or mop

    Built-in Upgrades:

  • Additional burners or larger cooking surface to entertain larger groups
  • Searing station or sideburner for stovetop cooking
  • Shelving or storage space
  • Built-in smoking chamber
  • Propane gauge

    Add-On Accessories:

  • Charcoal baskets for indirect cooking
  • Rotisserie, griddle, wok or or pizza stone
  • Smoker box, wood chips
  • Handle light
  • Vegetable or fish baskets, rib or roast racks, skewers, racks for specialty dishes like wings or poppers
  • Tool holder, apron, wireless thermometer
  • Cookbooks, rubs, sauces

CERAMIC GRILLS

They’re great for smoking and because they can reach very high heat that’s ideal for grilling, baking and searing. All of it can be done in one unit, saving time and cost of buying additional equipment. This makes them an exceptional value even at a higher price point.

How a Ceramic Grill Cooks
Hardwood natural lump charcoal fuels the cooking for loads of smoky wood fired flavor without chemicals. And, they’re very fuel efficient. Premium hardwood lump charcoal doesn’t turn to ash and smothers easily when you cut off air. You can relight the coal to get multiple uses out of one batch. The shape allows air to circulate around the food for uniform cooking. Control the temperature precisely by adjusting a draft door. The ceramic is great insulation so it uses less heat overall to cook helps meat stay moist. Ceramic heat deflectors allow for indirect and more versatile cooking.
How to Start a Ceramic Grill
You can light the coals with a chimney starter, fire starter cubes, an electric charcoal starter or an electric blow lighter. Open the draft door at the bottom of the grill, leave the dome up. After about 10 minutes you close the dome.

    Basic Must-Haves:

  • Some models come with all the accessories to bake, smoke and grill right out of the box
  • Lump charcoal
  • Electric starter
  • Grilling gloves

    Built-in Upgrades:

  • Innovative features – multi level cooking rack to create multiple cooking zones
  • Slide out ash drawer for easy clean up. Easy setup – mostly pre-assembled
  • Larger unit with larger cooking surface
  • Stand with casters Cooking island or table

    Add-On Accessories:

  • Side table
  • Dutch Oven
  • Indirect convection system
  • Pizza or baking stones
  • Multi-level cooking grates or cast iron grate
  • Roasters or racks
  • Flavor injector, basting mop
  • Specialty utensils

WOOD PELLET STOVE

They combine taste of food cooked over wood with ease of gas grill. It’s a common misconception that wood pellet grills are only used by people who enter competitions and write food blogs. But they cook every piece of meat evenly, so even a novice can smoke, grill, bake, braise and roast with one grill. The convenience of setting it and leaving it alone saves time.

How it Cooks
They use wood pellets for fuel to cook the food and run on very little electricity. The pellets come in a variety of flavors and can infuse your food with different flavors. When you start the grill, an auger continuously pushes pellets into the firepot and air is pushed into the firepot by a fan to precisely control the temperature of the fire. A deflector plate spreads out heat below the cooking surface to circulate heat like a convention oven. In fact, the hot smoky air circulates around the entire cooking chamber cooking food evenly – so it cooks like a rotisserie without needing the attachment.
How to Start It
You load pellets in a hopper and start the grill and a digital thermostat lets you maintain a specific temperature. The rest happens automatically. You don’t need a rotisserie and you may not even need to turn your food. This nice set-it-and-forget-it option makes it a good option for beginners or advanced grillers.

    Basic Must-Haves:

  • Wood pellets
  • Long-handled barbecue tongs, fork and spatula
  • BBQ Mitt
  • Cover and insulating blanket for cold weather cooking

    Built-in Upgrades:

  • Larger grilling area
  • Larger hopper capacity
  • Enclosed storage
  • Additional shelves
  • Hopper cleanout door
  • Tool caddy

    Add-On Accessories:

  • BBQ sauces, rubs and spices
  • Hardwood pellets in a variety of flavors
  • Thermometer
  • Grill racks, chicken leg and rib racks, skewers
  • Pizza grilling kit or grilling basket
  • Meat injector, sauce mop
  • Grill pad
  • Front or bottom shelves

SMOKERS

Barbecue smokers are used for cooking meats at low temperatures over a longer period of time. Using different woods will create unique flavors. Bullet style smokers are great for smaller pieces of meat. Cabinet style smokers can handle more cuts of meat and larger pieces. It’s popular to have a grill for smoking small dishes and a separate smoker for slow cooking larger cuts.

How it Cooks
The base contains the heat source – charcoal, gas or electricity. A liquid pan and water soaked wood chips or chunks are set above the heat source to create smoke and to prevent the food from drying out. You place your food on the grill racks above. A built in thermometer can help monitor temperature and a damper helps you regulate the temperature by allowing air in. Fuel door lets you add fuel or wood chips without opening door and losing heat.
How to Start It
Charcoal, gas or electric smokers operate and start slightly differently so read your owner’s manual. An electric start is the easiest. At the most basic level, you’ll add wood chips and a pan of water near the heat source. You may need to soak wood chips or add water as you cook. Add your food to the grilling racks. You can also try adding beverages, marinades or herbs and spices to the water pan for added flavor.

    Basic Must-Haves and Add-On Accessories:

  • Wood chips
  • Cookbook
  • Jerky rack

    Built-in Upgrades:

  • Additional smoking racks
  • Cold smoke box for cheese and fruit

FRYERS

From preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to tailgating at the game, a deep fryer prepares juicy, tender, yet deliciously crispy food. And when it comes to turkey it can deliver the cooked bird in half the time of an oven-roasted bird.

How it Cooks
Food is placed in a basket and submerged in oil heated by a propane stove base. Cooking with hot oil can be extremely dangerous. Be sure to follow all instructions and have a fire extinguisher on hand when using your turkey fryer. An oil free eliminates oil by using radiant heat to cook your food.

    Basic Must-Haves:

  • Fryer
  • Oil
  • Turkey racks and hooks
  • Seasoning Injector
  • Cooking thermometer

7 TIPS FOR GRILLING FISH – May 2016

BY MARK HOLZKOPF, GUEST BLOGGER FOR WEBER GRILLS

I try to grill some type of seafood once a week. Grilling seafood is easier than you think. Once you get a taste of it, you’ll be hooked! I always pass by the seafood counter at my local market to see what the “catch of the day” is.

Salmon is usually my go-to. It is readily available year round in most markets and can be purchased whole, cross cut steaks with the bone-in or boneless fillets. Salmon can be seasoned with a wide array of spices or rubs. That’s what I love most about it. One day I’ll marinate steaks in a teriyaki recipe, and the next time, I will do a simple salt and pepper with lemon butter sauce.

Fresh halibut is another of my favorites. When in season, I’m grilling it often. I like to season my halibut with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano. Once taken off the grill I’ll squeeze fresh lemon over it.

You can even grill whole fish!! My local fishmonger from time to time gets whole fresh Mediterranean Sea bass. Each fish weighs about 1 to 1¼ pounds.

There are so many choices in grilling seafood. Some of my other favorites include: Sea Scallops, Shrimp Skewers, and my new favorite… seared Tuna!

Here are some of my tips for grilling seafood:

  1. Flipping fish is easier when you have a spatula specifically designed for the task!
  2. Be sure to preheat your grill on high for 10-15 minutes and brush the cooking grates clean.
  3. Keep the skin on; it will help prevent your fish from falling apart.
  4. Brush a light coat of oil on the fish to prevent it from sticking to the grates.
  5. Grilling time for a filet will be about 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
  6. When grilling a filet with skin, I grill the flesh side first for 70% of the total cooking time, and then flip it to the skin side for the remainder of the time.
  7. I recommend ½-lb serving size for a boneless filet, ¾lb for a bone-in cross cut steak, and 1 to 1 ¼lb on a whole fish.
  8. The most important tip…. Get to know your local fishmonger

!!! BY MARK HOLZKOPF, GUEST BLOGGER FOR WEBER GRILLS


3 Ways to Attract Northern Cardinal – April 2016

By The Wild Bird Feeding Experts at Perky-Pet®

The Northern Cardinal is one of the most beloved of the backyard birds that regularly visits bird feeders. While the male cardinal’s crimson plumage is a wonderful sight on a snowy day, the female cardinal is also quite beautiful thanks to its rusty subtle coloring.

Mostly located in the eastern portion of the U.S., the Northern Cardinal is considered a resident bird in those areas, meaning that it doesn’t migrate. At one time, these glorious birds were mostly restricted to a range in the southeastern U.S., but in recent decades the species has slowly spread north and west.

Want to attract Northern Cardinals to your yard? Try these three tips:

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Without a doubt, Northern Cardinals enjoy black-oil sunflower seeds. A well-stocked feeder full of black-oil sunflower seeds will draw in large numbers of cardinals. These seeds are packed with fat and protein, which helps cardinals preserve energy throughout the colder winter months.
Use the Right Feeders
Many birds have a preference as to what kind of feeders they’re willing to use. For cardinals, feeders that have built-in trays or larger perches are ideal. As one of the mid-sized backyard birds, cardinals need extra space to fit comfortably on a feeder. Another option is to build a bird table – a small, raised platform where you can pour seed. If that seems like a fun project, ask the experts at your local Ace® Hardware for ideas on the constructing a raised platform with the best weatherproof materials.
Plant Evergreen Thickets & Shrubs
You will rarely see Northern Cardinals out in the open. Instead, they tend to restrict their activity to shrubs and bushes along woodland borders – which basically means they love the typical suburban yard. With that in mind, it’s easy to make them comfortable while making your yard look great! By planting evergreen shrubs, you’ll provide cover and roosting opportunities for cardinals all year long. Once those are in place, locate feeders about 12-15 feet from the nearest vegetation.

Build Your Disaster Preparedness Kit – March 2016

If your home and belongings were damaged by a natural disaster, a basic emergency preparedness kit can help you get through the first few days until you can get on to recovery. Consider having at least two emergency supply kits. One full kit at home and smaller portable kits at work or in your vehicle can help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends some of these basics and unique or additional items to think about including in your emergency supply kits:

BASIC EMERGENCY SUPPLIES
Think about what you might need in at least the first three days after a natural disaster. Here are some suggestions for basic supplies to keep in this kit:

  • First aid kit
  • Bottled drinking water. A gallon per person, per day.
  • Non-perishable foods
  • Manual can opener
  • Battery-powered or hand crank weather radio
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Blankets or Sleeping Bags
  • Whistle. To signal for help.
  • Dust masks. To help filter contaminated air.
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape. To create a makeshift shelter.
  • Sanitation and hygiene supplies. Disposable moist towels, garbage bags.
  • Wrench or pliers. To turn off utilities like gas and water.
  • Contact names and numbers. Cell phone. Chargers or backup batteries.

ADDITIONAL SUPPLIES
You and your family may have unique needs that need to be met in an emergency. Think about whether your kit should include any of the following:

  • Cash
  • Important documents. Copies of insurance policies, IDs and bank account records in a waterproof container.
  • Clothing. Include sturdy shoes.
  • Basics for hygiene
  • Medication
  • Infant formula
  • Diapers
  • medication
  • Food, medication and water for pets
  • Spare prescription eyewear
  • Hearing aid batteries
  • Denture supplies
  • Feminine hygiene
  • Chlorine bleach (without scent or other additives) and a medicine dropper. To treat water in an emergency.
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • A camping mess kit. Or a supply of disposable cups, plates, and plastic utensils
  • Paper, pencils, books, or activities for children

RECOVERY SUPPLIES
In the wake of a natural disaster, demand spikes for some tools and supplies, store shelves tend to be depleted quickly and it can be difficult for retailers to restock quickly if roads are blocked. Having any of the following items on-hand can help you recover more quickly if an emergency strikes.

For power loss:
  • Back-up generator and oil
  • Gasoline
  • Battery or solar powered lanterns
cleaning supplies For water damage:
  • Mold, mildew cleaners
  • Mop
  • Dehumidifier
  • Wet/dry vacuum
For debris like downed branches:
  • Chain saw and protective mask
  • Axe
  • Hand saw and pruners
  • Shovel
  • Rake
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Heavy-duty trash bags
For basic damage clean up and repair:
  • Cordless power tools. Reciprocating saw. Drill.
  • tools
  • Hammer
  • Nails and screws
  • Screwdriver
  • Wrench
  • Tarps
  • Rope, bungee cords, zip ties
  • Work boots or heavy shoes
  • Gloves
  • Eye protection

 


Tips for Snow Removal – February 2016

Snow Shovel

If you're one of those people who live in a colder climate, hearing the word "snow" can be downright chilling. It wouldn't be so bad if we didn't have to shovel it, but it would seem that we have no choice. To make matters worse, the risk of injury is significantly greater after a good snowfall, so you have to act fast to keep friends and loved ones safe when visiting for the holidays.

As with many things, common sense and a little elbow grease tend to work best when controlling your winter wonderland. Snow removal is a cinch if you follow these simple guidelines:

Driveways and Sidewalks

  • As soon as snow and freezing rain begin to fall, spread a melting agent on the driveway and regularly traveled walkways to help slow the freezing process.
  • shovel
  • Grab a shovel and get outside as soon as you can, and don't wait for the sun to melt the snow naturally - a sudden drop in temperature can solidify snowfall quickly. Clear more than just a single-shovel path on the walkways, which will make walking safer.
  • If you are unable to remove a patch of ice, crack it with an ice chisel or heavy-duty scraping tool to expose the surface to the air. This will help accelerate the melting process.

Essential Tools of the Trade

  • Melting Agents
    Also referred to as de-icers, these are specific chemical compounds of salt and heat-generating solids packaged in bags ranging from 10 lbs. to 50, and even 80 lbs. Spread the granules liberally on the driveway and walkway, but be sure to wear gloves, as melting agents can sometimes cause mild skin irritation.
  • Shovel
  • Snow Shovels
    Today's newer models are made stronger yet lighter to allow you to move snow easier than before. Choose one with an ergonomically correct handle to prevent straining your back.
  • Snow Pushers
    Good for moving heavy, wet snow, these tools do what their name implies: They assist you in pushing large volumes of snow from one end of the driveway to the other. As an extra-added bonus, operating the pushers requires you to stand up straight instead of bending over, saving you a trip to the chiropractor this holiday season.
  • Snow Throwers
    Although more expensive upfront than purchasing a shovel, investment in a good snow thrower is ten-fold. "A good snow thrower will allow you to clear snow in a fraction of the time," says Manfredini.

Snow's no match for you if you follow these simple tips. And remember, if you have home improvement questions and need a little advice, send me an email at asklou@acehardware.com - I'd be glad to help!

-Lou


Five Steps To A Healthier Home – January 2016

By Lou Manfredini

Products Suggested by Lou for a Healthier Home

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the air inside our homes may be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. What's surprising is that this statistic does not exclude newer homes, which can actually test higher than older residences in terms of poor indoor air quality.

Healthier Home

In a rush to conserve energy in the 1970s, builders (like myself), architects and designers began building tighter homes with energy efficient windows and doors and thicker insulation in an effort to seal out potential drafts. While we succeeded in lowering the cost of energy bills, we ended up adding to the problem of trapping volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - harmful fumes caused by leftover building products, furniture, animal dander, and indoor mildew and mold - inside our homes.

Today, Americans spend millions of dollars each year on indoor air filtration systems. We purchase everything from small, tabletop models to whole-house units for our homes. And yet, even with all the information available on the market, there is major debate on which ones truly work the best.

Below are five steps that you can take to improve your home's indoor air quality. By following these steps and coupling them with the right indoor air purifying unit, you'll breathe a lot easier in your own home.

Step One: Test your home for possible contaminants.
Today, there are a number of in-home test kits available to assess everything from lead on walls and in your drinking water, to asbestos and radon gas. And utilizing these inexpensive kits can give you the peace of mind of knowing that you and your family are safe.

Step Two: If you have a forced air heating system, have the air ducts cleaned regularly and upgrade to better furnace air filters.
Homeowners often ask, "Is cleaning my air ducts worth it?" The answer is yes. Even if your home is new, you may have more internal construction debris and dust than a home that is 10 to 15 years old. When getting your air ducts cleaned, make sure the contractor is a member of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (www.nadca.com), and uses not only high velocity air, but a whip that is fed through the ductwork to loosen any debris stuck to the walls of the sheet-metal. The average cost to clean ductwork in your home is about $300 to $500, but the results are well worth the expense.

In conjunction, for many of us, the furnace filter is a spun glass filter that costs less than a dollar. While this filter will protect the blower motor, it will do next to nothing when it comes to improving your indoor air quality. Upgrade to a pleated filter that captures smaller particles so small that even the naked eye cannot see. The key is to change them regularly - every couple of months should do - to prevent to the restriction of airflow through your heating system.

Step Three: Keep your home as clean as possible.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), an estimated 57 million Americans suffer from severe allergies and asthma and keeping your home as clean as possible can dramatically improve the air you breathe. Dusting window treatments, around window and door trim and those out-of-reach areas can make a huge impact. Use a bagless vacuum cleaner that utilizes a HEPA filter to maximize your cleaning power and avoid the plume of dust that occurs when you'd otherwise change the bag.

Step Four: Consider purchasing an indoor air purifier.
Because they can vary in performance, size and cost, it's important that you find the right purifier to fit your needs. There are a number of Web sites you can turn to for help. One of the industry standards is put forth by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers' (AHAM) Air Cleaner Council (www.aham.org). There, testing helps set certain parameters so that all purification units are measured against the same criteria. If you're thinking of a particular model and in search of its product rating guide, visit www.cadr.org for the unit's "clean air delivery rate." In turn, take advantage of the 30-day free trial offer many manufacturers offer. By the end of 30 days, you'll know if you are breathing easier and if the unit is worth the investment.

HEPA filtration (High Efficiency Particulate Air) is one of the most common approaches to cleaning the air. A good quality HEPA filtering system can be up to 99.97 percent efficient at filtering particulates that are 0.3 microns from the air. This filtering system has been widely used and accepted by organizations promoting indoor air quality standards to clean the indoor air of smoke, dust, pollen, mold spores and pet dander.

Portable units, when sized correctly, can do a good job of cleaning the air in a particular room. But the key is to make sure that unit is sized for the square footage of that room. In addition, the faster the fan runs, the more air is exchanged through the unit. While this does increase the noise, the units will work much better.

HEPA room purifiers can range in price from $30 to $300. The Holmes units that are available at participating Ace Hardware (Ace nos. 6105076 and 6091227) are some of the best performing units on the market. These units use a modular filter system which makes finding and installing the filters much easier.

Step Five: Protect your family by installing a carbon monoxide detector.
It used to be that smoke detectors were enough to protect your family. However, in recent years, homeowners across America have been taking safety a step further by installing carbon monoxide detectors in their homes.

When installing a carbon monoxide detector, remember that the placement of that detector is key. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends it be located near the sleeping area, where it can wake you if you are asleep; however, additional detectors on every level and in every bedroom of a home provides extra protection.

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